Brendan Schulman reflects on his DJI career and the industry: A DroneDJ exclusive

Brendan Schulman DJI DroneDJ exclusive

DroneDJ sat down with Brendan Schulman for an exclusive interview during the weekend. The conversation took place between his departure from DJI and his start at Boston Dynamics – and explores his personal perspectives on the industry he’s been an integral part of for nearly a decade. Brendan was generous with his time, answering a long series of questions that provide insight into his accomplishments – along with some seasoned observations about the sector at large. We’re proud to present this exclusive interview with a person who can rightfully be called an industry legend.

Before we get into this, if you haven’t yet read the news about Brendan’s departure from DJI, you can find that story here. It should also be pointed out that these are Brendan’s personal views, and not those of his former (or new) employer.

With that out of the way, let’s get into this. We’ll tell you in advance this is a long read, but a very worthwhile one for anyone interested not only in Brendan but in some of the major trends that have shaped – and will continue to shape – the world of drones. He’s got a lot to say.

We also want to thank Brendan not only for his time in thoughtfully answering our questions (as well as suggesting some of his own), but for his outstanding contribution to common-sense drone regulations and many of the safety features currently embedded in DJI products. Brendan has played an immense and positive role in shaping the regulatory landscape as we know it, and has been a powerful and effective voice not only for DJI, but for the everyday drone user.

And now? Let’s dive in. It’s a deep dive, but well worth it.

Brendan Schulman, ex-DJI, DroneDJ exclusive:

How and when did you first become involved at DJI?

In 2015, shortly after the Phantom landed on the White House lawn, DJI started looking for someone to lead its public policy function and engage with government on solutions. At the time, I was already well-known as a lawyer specializing in emerging drone law and policy, with several cases and regulatory proposals I had worked on. I also had a couple decades of extensive experience with radio-control aircraft technology as a hobby. I interviewed for the role, we all agreed it was a terrific match, and I left my law firm and came on board in July 2015. Of course, my original experience with DJI actually dates back to around 2011 when I built my first quadcopter using the DJI F450 frame and Naza controller.

Brendan with DJI crew when he joined in 2015. Courtesy Brendan Schulman

What has  your “mission” been at DJI and within the drone industry?

Before and during my time at DJI, my mission has always been to advocate for innovation, educating policymakers and communities on the benefits of technology so that the policy and regulatory outcomes support widespread use. New technologies are almost always misunderstood and prompt a backlash from government, and my main objective has always been to prevent illogical bad policy outcomes while taking seriously, and solving, the real concerns such as safety, security, and privacy. The key is to identify actual risk and find real solutions. 

Brendan Schulman’s departure is a huge loss for DJI.

I’ve been an enthusiast of aerial technology since the mid-’90s, and so I tend to approach policy issues with the end user in mind: What policies are going to get in my way if I want to use a drone productively? And what restrictions or requirements can I reasonably live with? It has never been about resisting all regulation, which would be impractical and unwise. Government and societal concerns are a real need to be resolved, such as safety and accountability, and that means finding balanced solutions. 

Brendan (second from left) with several member of DJI’s policy team in Shenzhen, 2016. Photo courtesy Brendan Schulman

On Remote ID, for example, while it was clear the government would in the end mandate a solution whether drone operators liked it or not, I was most concerned about proposals that would add costs and complexities to basic, low-risk operations and that would invade the privacy of drone operators as they conduct their flights. So the focus of my efforts was to figure out a solution that would work, but that wouldn’t cost much money, be complicated, or create a vast surveillance system. Low cost, easy access to drone technology has driven all of its many benefits, from saving lives to industrial efficiency to aerial artistry. So, the regulations need to protect low-cost, low-barrier access to technology most of all, because that is how creativity and innovation flourish. 

Why leave DJI now?

It seems ideal to me to exit on a high note, which is how I view this year: the rules for the major policy initiative of FAA Remote ID have been set, and they are thankfully reasonable and low-cost; night operations and flight-over-people are routinely allowed under the new rules and will save lives; the FAA finalized its new recreational drone framework pursuant to congressional mandates, preserving freedoms for newcomers, youngsters, students, and those who simply enjoy flight; and DJI’s government products were audited at the source-code level by the US Department of Defense’s technical security team based at Fort Bragg, and received a clean bill of health. (Yes, this actually happened. I was briefed by DOD frequently during the process, including three times in person during the pandemic. People who have a vested interest in a different outcome starting spinning stories immediately.) So, these are all positive milestone outcomes for the cause of drone innovation. 

The policies we now have in place have enabled amazing benefits. When I started my Drone Law adventure nearly a decade ago, few could imagine a civilian drone saving lives, and early pioneers were told their work was illegal. Now, drones are known to have rescued at least 750 people from peril based on news reports alone, thanks to regulations that allow them to be widely and efficiently used, and society is now well aware of their benefits in public safety and countless industries. This is the world I wanted to open up when I took on that first legal case involving the FAA and civilian drones in 2013. In many ways, during my tenure, the major policies for civilian drones were established, both in the US and in other places where I have engaged, many of the concerns and fears about drones have been resolved, and my mission feels complete. It’s like the saying, “leave the party while you are still having fun.”

Brendan is also passionate about the good work drones can achieve. Photo courtesy Brendan Schulman

So, we have come a long way. But we have also regressed, to my dismay. The industry has become highly politicized, in part a reflection of geopolitics between the US and China that are obviously far larger than our fledgling industry, but also exacerbated by drone companies recently looking for any possible new competitive angle in an industry that already matured a few years ago. A company that asserts questionable marketing claims about where its product is “made” (which has legal significance), or to what extent its commercial drone can fully “fly itself without a pilot” (which is not legal), is probably just engaged in the type of puffery found in other industries and not too surprising. But a company stoking fears about drone technology, a technology already controversial among the public, in order to drive fear-based policy that will artificially increase sales of its own drone product, is ultimately self-destructive and damaging to the industry as a whole. The problem-solving, risk-mitigating, collaboration-seeking industry I had come to think we were creating seems as elusive as ever. 

In fact, someone who left the company a few months ago said to me, “you and [former DJI senior director of government relations] Mark [Aitken] are the two most creative and effective advocates in this industry, and you are spending nearly all of your time dealing with China-US politics and false security allegations rather than helping advance the industry as you otherwise would. That has been a huge loss to the industry.” I think he was right. My ability to advocate effectively for the entire industry, as I have for nearly a decade, was increasingly impaired by the amount of time I had to spend on a weekly basis just to help keep the world’s best drone technology from succumbing to politics, as well as the way that politics permeated work we ought to be doing together on things like safety. My genuine offers to collaborate with certain other industry companies on common policy objectives like BVLOS and autonomy have been rebuffed, as they spent their time lobbying against DJI instead. That’s very different from the great collaboration I experienced with Parrot, 3DR, and GoPro during my first few years at DJI. Although many of the “controversial” concerns have been important to address just like any other drone-related policy, and even exciting for me to deal with given the global prominence of these issues, with many successful outcomes along the way, it is clear that the focus of the US industry is no longer on promoting innovation and addressing real concerns, but on something very different. This too has been a factor in my decision to leave the industry at this time. 

Is the drone cybersecurity issue something everyone should care about?

Yes, because of what these policy proposals mean for the industry if you think through their logical outcome. The premise is that drones made in China present a national security risk just because of where they are made, to such a serious extent that they need to be banned in some way. But if you can’t trust a drone just because of where it’s made, how can you trust a drone that’s flown by a person you haven’t vetted? If you are worried about where that data will end up, the pilot is also a risk and could do with an American drone everything alleged is being done with a Chinese drone. Either flying a drone, which provides an aerial perspective from the airspace we all share, is a threat to national security, or it’s not. If it is, then every drone pilot needs a security clearance and this industry is heading down a dark path of blanket flight restrictions and “trusted operators.” This is something we should be talking about because right now, everyone has the freedom to fly a drone in just about any location in the United States, no matter who they are. For how long will that remain the case? 

I recently attended a major drone convention and, stunningly, not a single panel session or speaker planned to discuss these policy proposals that threaten to tear the industry apart and deprive public safety personnel of equipment that has been proven to protect and save lives. Similarly, daily email updates from a major industry institution covering all manner of drone policy developments entirely ignore bills and amendments impacting drones when those proposals fall into the China-US category, because that topic was controversial for the institution’s members to discuss about a year ago. These are the most impactful, significant policy directions affecting this industry right now and no one wants to discuss them! I have had so many private conversations with people who tell me these policies are wrong and pointless and damaging, but that they cannot speak up because of the politics within their company, university, trade association, industry, etc. We should all be alarmed, but it’s not DJI alone that can deal with this, because DJI is the target. The broader industry needs to step up and start talking about what’s on the table and at risk of being lost. This is much bigger than one company. 

A case in point: until 2019, the US Department of the Interior had the best government-run civilian drone program in the world, by far. DOI’s annual reports were amazing in terms of the variety and number of missions they were performing with drones, ranging from firefighting to search and rescue to nature conservation, and so on. And they even solved the cybersecurity concerns through a collaborative process, although almost none of their missions are sensitive. But the program was wrecked by politics, and now I see other countries’ agencies pulling ahead with their drone programs. Depressingly, DOI’s drone missions have fallen over 75% since politics overcame pragmatism, during a time when everyone else in the world is expanding drone operations. Also, the “Blue UAS” haven’t helped restore those lost missions. So, two years ago, the US government shot itself in the foot and lost a toe. The current proposed policies will, if they become law, amputate the other nine toes and both feet. Where will that trend go and which operations and organizations will be swept up next? A company in the industry has hired well-connected lobbyists in Florida to apparently lobby for an anti-Chinese state drone bill that would take equipment away from state public safety agencies, such as the equipment recently used in the Surfside building collapse rescue and investigation. So I guess this game is now moving to the state level. Is this the direction the industry wants to let things go? Maybe it is, but before those decisions are made, there should be a broad discussion that includes those who have something to lose.

So how should cybersecurity issues be resolved?

If the industry actually had a cybersecurity problem, it would approach it collaboratively, just like it does its safety challenges: identify and categorize the risks, convene the stakeholders to discuss the issues and solutions as it has done for other important government needs in four separate UAS advisory committees since 2015. Then, create standards and requirements to mitigate the identified risks, and allow the end user to select among products that are demonstrated to comply, depending on the nature of the mission. I’m not at DJI anymore, so I have no stake in saying that this would be the right way to deal with risks of all kinds, and that the country-of-origin approach being proposed instead by various policymakers is a problem for everyone who truly cares about the future of the drone industry.

What do you regard as your proudest accomplishment at DJI?

I’ve helped shape just about every major drone policy out there in one way or another, but it’s actually my work on DJI safety features that I’m most proud of. When I joined DJI, I recognized I would have a special opportunity to drive voluntary safety solutions that would be deployed to 75% or more of the market. I started with the upgrade to the geofencing in early 2016, which made it more flexible, graduated, accurate, and live, then another geofencing update in 2018 that better protected airport approach paths by switching from circles around airports to bowtie shapes around their runways. I also led the efforts on Remote ID (AeroScope), DJI’s Knowledge Quiz, and its commitment to installing ADS-B (AirSense) in virtually every drone. 

DJI’s AirSense can detect nearby ADS-B equipped crewed aircraft.

I know these have made a difference. A government representative from a US-allied country told me AeroScope saved lives in an attempted terrorist attack by providing an early warning about an incoming drone, and I know it is in widespread use for security purposes in the US, five years ahead of the FAA Remote ID mandate. I am starting to learn about research data from at least two sources showing that DJI’s 2018 geofencing update has kept drones away from the dangerous areas near major airport runways. It also seems to have lowered the number of drone sightings. We’ll never know if that prevented collisions, since you can’t prove a negative, but it seems obvious to me that it did. And ADS-B has clearly helped drone pilots steer clear of helicopters and airplanes, as I’ve seen users discuss online with real-world anecdotes. I love being able to create technology-based solutions to technology-based problems, and the number of times and different ways I did that at DJI makes me proud. DJI also deserves a tremendous amount of credit for voluntarily doing all these things for safety that I proposed, and that the fantastic FlySafe team worked on with me. 

What’s the craziest experience you’ve ever had working for DJI?

One memorable experience was my meeting with then-Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, in Beijing in April 2018. Because she was already there for a conference, it was politically acceptable for her to meet with DJI. It was a pleasant meeting in a hotel conference suite, and I think she learned a lot about what drones can do. But the meeting came together at the last minute and to make it work I flew to Beijing and landed at 4 a.m., had about two hours of sleep before the meeting, and then flew out that same day at 10:30 p.m. So, that was about 27 hours in the air and 18 hours on the ground for a 25-minute meeting.

After hearing this story, it’s amazing Brendan doesn’t look ready to drop. Photo courtesy of Brendan Schulman

Obviously, we could have easily just met in Washington, D.C., but that would have been bad optics, politically, for her. This is also a good illustration of some of the recent challenges that get in the way of something as simple as an educational conversation about how the vast majority of civilian drones in the world are used.

Any idea how many trips to Shenzhen there have been during your tenure?

Since February 2020, zero! But I was typically there about four or five times a year, so around 22 trips before the pandemic. If you do the math, at 16 hours each way, that is an entire month of time in the air. United Airlines misses me.

I think most people know you for your work in the United States, and in particular on FAA issues. But your role has been global. Where else have you helped educate lawmakers and influence policy outcomes for drones?

DJI’s huge global footprint really provided an amazing opportunity to engage everywhere, and I always wanted to do as much as I could. Over the years, I’ve engaged on policy issues in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, EU (particularly France and Germany), the UK, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Thailand and Israel, to name the ones I can recall. But this has also relied upon having a great global team of policy professionals working with me, and I’m grateful for their years of hard work that has been to the benefit of drone operators in so many places. Much of the heavy lifting was done by my terrific policy directors in Europe and Asia-Pacific, and their junior colleagues on the team.

You’ve been here for many DJI product launches. What’s your favorite?

I joined right after the Phantom 3 was launched. After that, the products have generally gotten better, bigger, or smaller, but they all generally do the same thing very well, which is to create smooth, stable flight with a camera that a gimbal keeps level with the horizon, and a smartphone or tablet as the ground control station. Among the product launches, I liked the Phantom 4 launch in 2016 which for the first time showed a consumer drone with automated collision avoidance of obstacles in the path. This type of feature seems to be all the rage now in marketing circles, but it was deployed in a DJI product in 2016. I love that it’s both a feature for creating great “follow me” aerial video and also a safety feature, as videos from that era showed. 

Brendan’s favorite DJI product: The DJI FPV drone.

But it was the DJI FPV drone last year that really broke the mold and introduced something very different: a dynamic aerobatic flight capability that I have enjoyed for years on non-DJI products. So that’s my favorite. It also has some great features that make the daunting transition to FPV flight easier. I also love the augmented-reality implementation of the Home-Point. That’s a little taste of other ways to enhance pilot situational awareness by superimposing important information onto the live video view from the drone. Lots of folks in the AR space are looking for real-world applications; I think drones are a genuine natural fit because humans aren’t used to a live, moving aerial perspective. Overlaying dynamic information on the live video is going to be really beneficial in many applications, including flight safety.

When you entered the industry, there was virtually no drone policy. Have the regulations worked out well? Is the FAA doing a good job with the drone regulations?

It has taken a long time and there were bumps along the way, but the regulations have worked out well. Anyone can buy a drone, affordably, take a straightforward test with a high passage rate, and use a drone for commercial purposes. That’s great, and in many ways the US rules are the best in the world. 

The FAA question is complicated. It’s a big agency. The UAS Integration Office is terrific, and they have done a lot of innovative and productive things for the industry. I think they get slowed down by the bureaucratic nature of the rest of the FAA. Remote ID was called for by Congress in the fall of 2016. It should not take until the fall of 2023 to fully implement it. That’s seven years just for a drone to identify its owner! The practical solutions were readily known by the summer of 2017 at the Aviation Rulemaking Committee I served on. Similarly, in 2016, Congress mandated FAA to create a process to establish UAS flight restrictions for locations that are high-risk or sensitive such as infrastructure. The Congressional deadline was 2017. Here we are in 2021 and the rulemaking hasn’t been issued yet. That’s ironic, given all the sensational concern about drones and national security these past few years. If the federal government were serious about protecting sensitive sites from potential security risks from the air, it could issue those restrictions to actually start solving the problem. 

DJI Brendan Schulman with then- FAA Administrator Michael Huerta (C) and Earl Lawrence. Photo courtesy of Brendan Schulman

But the good news is that we have had a basic set of operating rules since 2016 (Part 107) and they are reasonable, address safety risks, and enable individuals and small business to explore the value of drones. That’s working well, and actually much better than in other countries I’ve engaged, such as India where an effort to create a very complex set of requirements years ago has caused everyone to go back to the drawing board this year with a brand new approach that also seems to have its own serious problems. It’s a mess. For operators in the United States, things have generally been working well for five years, and we have a lot of valuable operations to show for it.

And where are things going?

It’s hard to look ahead without being pessimistic. If seven years is the measure of how long it took to complete Remote ID implementation, I don’t know how long it will be before BVLOS, a much more complicated challenge, is implemented. That Aviation Rulemaking Committee is working now, through November. It’s a very large group but I hear they are working diligently, which is great. I hope they are being practical and focused on attainable goals. Will it take the FAA until 2028 to implement their recommendations? Probably. And that’s not good, because we all agree that BVLOS operations will open amazing benefits for society. From the sidelines now, I’ll be cheering for a faster result, but I’ve seen this process before. 

One other thing concerns me. I’ve heard recently there is a proposal to take the FAA UAS Integration Office and split it apart or move pieces into various other FAA functions such as research. The UASIO needs to be elevated and empowered, not disassembled. I’m not sure what the real intent is behind the proposal, but there is a general observation that this Administration isn’t finding drones as interesting or important as the past two Administrations. I hope this isn’t true, and just reflects some rather urgent short-term priorities for the country, but it’s something to watch out for.

Some have observed that DJI seems to be withdrawing from the United States, as many of its key people in the US have left without being replaced. Should your departure be seen that way?

You’ll really need to ask DJI about its plans for the region because I don’t know what they are and can’t speak to that. It’s a question I have myself, actually. But being in the government relations space with friends at other Chinese tech companies and with the copious reading I do of what analysts and scholars write on this topic, I can provide a general observation that may or may not apply: Just as the US has experienced several years of nationalism and messaging signaling a desire to distance itself from China, so too have Chinese companies, naturally, experienced the same sentiments and messaging in their domestic market about the United States.

Brendan Schulman at CES with former colleagues Eric Ebenstein and Adam Lisberg. Photo courtesy Brendan Schulman

I suspect that many Chinese companies right now feel the urge to be more independent, to centralize management at their Chinese headquarters, to reduce dependence on US component suppliers, and to de-emphasize collaborations and engagement in the US and Europe. We are all part of the geopolitical movement of the day whether we like it or not, and we can’t just think about that from a US perspective. There is also a Chinese perspective. I do think these questions have a lot of importance to the drone industry. If you were DJI, what messages have you heard lately from American customers, partners, and government? Would it make you want to maintain, invest in or expand your presence here? I don’t have answers specific to DJI but it’s possible these more general observations are relevant.

For years, you’ve been iconic in the world of drone policy and have spent nearly a decade advocating for fair regulations for drone use. You’ve even been called “the Drone Defender” by Politico magazine. Who is going to advocate for drones in your absence from the industry?

That’s very kind of you, and a little embarrassing, but it has always been a team effort. I’ve been delighted in recent months to see drone organizations emerging to begin advocating for themselves and engage with government. The Drone Service Providers Alliance, FPV Freedom Coalition, FliteTest Community Association and Pennsylvania Drone Association are just a few who are productively working on policy issues for their constituents. When I was on the FAA Drone Advisory Committee, I made the comment at least three times during the meetings that the operating industry mostly consists of thousands of small operators and that they deserve to be represented not only at the DAC but elsewhere. This now seems to be happening, although to my surprise there is no longer any representation on the DAC of the recreational drone users who comprise the largest operating segment by far. That’s an oversight that needs to be corrected. I’ve given a lot of speeches over the years, and I often end with a plea to operators to engage with their local news media and city council, as well as their federal representatives. That is and was important whether or not I’m around to continue the work.

Brendan’s contributions were recognized, even in the early days, with a song…

Is there anything you expected to happen by now in the drone industry that didn’t, such as routine drone delivery?

Yes, but it’s not a positive thing like that. I was sure when I started working at DJI that we would wake up one day to a news report about a fatal collision between a crewed aircraft and a drone. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened and in fact I also haven’t heard of a single ground fatality anywhere in the world resulting from a battery-powered multirotor drone. That’s amazing, when you think about the millions of drones in use worldwide. New forms of aviation have never been this safe. Crewed aviation in the US experiences crashes, including ground fatalities, on a regular basis without an outcry for greater regulation. Sometime in the next year we will read about the 1,000th person reported to be rescued by a drone (which probably means 2,000 others have already been rescued but weren’t reported on). The benefits of drones are here, and that means society should tolerate some additional risk. That’s probably the only way we will see reasonable rules for autonomy and BVLOS: if the risk tolerance at the FAA, and within society, changes because everyone has learned that drones are beneficial and should not be regulated the same way as a passenger plane. When I started my work on drones, I used to question whether drones really should fall under aviation policy frameworks that were established decades ago to address a very different kind of risk. I still wonder that sometimes, but I’m not convinced drones would be better governed by another framework given all the sensational fears they generate. There’s too much misunderstanding of the technology, so it really helps to have one central regulator that is good at evaluating risk objectively, even if it is too conservative because of the other 95% of its mission.

On drone delivery, you know what’s super interesting? In Africa, routine drone delivery of medical supplies already exists at scale thanks to Zipline. There, the regulator understands the benefits to society and is comfortable with the risks which are well-managed by the operator. I know the air traffic environment is different there, but we ought to look to that as a model of how other countries should proceed with drone delivery in low-traffic environments. They are ahead of us and likely will be for some time. The technology exists, what we continue to need is the right regulatory framework.

Zipline delivering medical supplies in Africa

Coming back to your question though, I’m glad the nightmare scenario hasn’t happened but I’m worried that if it does, there will be an intense overreaction, and progress in the industry will come to a halt. Just look at the 2018 Gatwick incident which, it is now clear, did not actually involve a drone. The documents uncovered by Freedom of Information Act requests, showing an utter lack of evidence of any drone being present, have made this quite clear. I can now comfortably say this as someone no longer in the industry, because it won’t be attributed to an industry company who might sensationally be accused of being in denial.

Inaccurate reporting has occasionally damaged the reputation of drones. Image courtesy of Brendan Schulman

The Gatwick incident is a stain on the industry that really needs to be fully investigated by neutral authorities, either to share lessons about how to prevent another incursion, or to confirm that the incident did not involve a drone and to prevent a repeat of false allegations. I spent two years in various meetings, including with the UK Minister of Aviation, dealing with the angry fallout of that one incident, and it had a tangible impact on the outcome of various drone policies thereafter. Imagine what will happen if something worse happens that actually involves a drone. This is another reason I’m really glad I was able to work on voluntary safety features for the past six years. If all that work prevented even one real incident similar to Gatwick, it was worth it.

I’m sure you have mixed feelings about leaving DJI. If you care to elaborate, please do.

DJI gave me the opportunity to take my technology-related legal practice to a new dimension by devoting my full time and energy to one company in one industry, work across different levels of government, as well as internationally, to advance the cause, and to collaborate with the R&D engineers on technical schemes and solutions. That all-consuming experience has been phenomenal, and I feel very fortunate to have been the right person in the right place at the right time to do it. Part of me wants to just do that forever, as long as there are issues to address and problems to solve.

Brendan has been advocating, lobbying and educating in this space for nearly a decade. Image courtesy Brendan Schulman

On the other hand, my engagement on policy in the drone industry is nearing a decade and I am excited to be starting something new, in a technology field that is just as exciting and has enormous potential just beginning to be realized. I see a lot of similarities with what drones faced in the early years and I’m eager to start figuring it all out. 

So let’s talk about your new position, vice president of policy & government relations at Boston Dynamics. Why the interest in that company?

I’ve been following the company for a while. The company, after 30 years of R&D, is doing amazing things with ground robotics, and I see so much potential to protect and lives, help people, and enhance economic efficiency across industries. As with drones, this advanced and different form of an otherwise familiar technology has raised some concerns, some legitimate and some simply sensational and unfounded. The situation reminds me a lot of where drones were about eight years ago: if you focus objectively on what this technology can and can’t do, you would see clear societal benefits we should all welcome. If you just watch Black Mirror, you would simply be horrified. 

Brendan will be hanging with a new pack at Boston Dynamics… including Spot

Also, if you were at AUVSI Xponential in Atlanta, you may have noticed that Spot (Boston Dynamics’ robot dog) stole the show. These amazing robots are definitely capturing the broader tech industry’s imagination in a way that feels similar to the debut of commercial drones a decade ago. After all, robots that can navigate terrain remotely from the operator are basically just drones that don’t fly. 

So, will your mission be the same?

Ask me after I’ve started and settled in, and I’d be glad to talk with you about the company’s objectives, which will become my actual mission. My personal expectation sitting here now, before I start, is yes, this is a familiar mission. Here’s an incredible technology that is similar to, but much more capable than, more basic versions that came before it, and it’s shaking up things because it is starting to be used more frequently in the real world to do real things. Just like drones are aircraft that get closer to, and interact with, people in new ways, agile mobile robots have applications that will bring them into regular contact with people who may be apprehensive. As with drones, the goal generally will be to understand the concerns from relevant stakeholders, to educate policymakers, and to figure out policies that make sense so that everyone across society can benefit from these amazing new tools. 

What’s the policy environment like for advanced robots?

It’s fairly new, with lots of opportunities and challenges. I also have a lot to learn, and am eager to do that, just like I did at the beginning of my journey with drone policy. One exciting aspect of robots is that full autonomy and BVLOS operation are completely legal today. You can do things with a ground robot that you cannot legally do with a flying drone, such as send it to autonomously conduct an inspection of a facility while the nearest humans are miles away. In many ways, these types of robots are similar to drones, except they don’t fly. That’s a limitation in some cases, sure, but from a policy perspective, that’s a huge opportunity. Many people follow my Twitter account @dronelaws, which I’ll keep active given my ongoing personal interest in drones. I’ve also started a new personal Twitter account called @robotpolicy for anyone interested in the new issues I’ll be exploring.

Brendan’s new Twitter account

I bet there’s going to be a lot of crossover of issues and solutions. Of course, both of these accounts always reflect my own personal interests and opinions only, and are not to be attributed to the company I work for.

Your interest in drones goes back over 25 years, to your radio control model airplane hobby. Are you as interested in robots as you are in drones?

Actually, I’ve been interested in robotics about a decade longer. When I was 11, the very first tech gadget I absolutely coveted was the Omnibot 5402 by Tomy. My parents said that to get it, I had to dramatically improve my grades in school. So I literally taped a note to my school desk that said in large letters “REMEMBER ROBOT!” and made an extra effort every day. It worked: my grades improved and I got my reward. (Also, perhaps not coincidentally, I did really well in school from that point on. Thanks, Mom and Dad!) Around the same time as a kid, I devoured Isaac Asimov’s Robot series, which at its core has a set of three simple robot laws that govern various outcomes in the story. (I doubt real policy solutions will be that simple.) I programmed the Omnibot to play my favorite music and bring me a can of soda, and in general it followed the Three Laws of Robotics perfectly. Unfortunately, most of my house at the time was carpeted (it was the ‘80’s!), the Omnibot used wheels to move, and the technology was pretty limited, so I got a bit bored and moved on to spend a lot more time with my Commodore 128 computer. 

Brendan Schulman has been flying R/C (and then drones) for about 25 years.

Now we have Spot, which not only can traverse carpet and uneven terrain, walk up stairs and open doors, but has even been programmed to autonomously dispense beer. How cool is that? I’ll be right in my element with this new role, and it’s a great match. When I told one of my kids about the new job, he said my job is to prevent Skynet from becoming self-aware and now I’m at risk of assassination from a killer robot sent back in time from the future. I thought, that would be a pretty cool way to die. But I also thought, that’s a good way of succinctly describing my objective: help humanity gain the benefits of robot technology while collaborating on policies, standards, and technical solutions that dispel the fears and mitigate the risks. This is a very natural extension of what I’ve been doing for the past decade, and also what I’ve been interested in my whole life. I’m looking forward to continuing the adventure, and I’m very grateful to have the opportunity. 

DroneDJ‘s take

As we noted in our original story about Brendan’s departure, his contributions to the evolving drone industry simply cannot be overstated. When the news broke on Friday, many took to social media to thank Brendan for all of his hard work, which has helped result in policies that truly strike a balance between the legitimate rights of operators and the need to ensure safety for crewed aircraft, people and property on the ground, privacy, and more. He has also, as noted in this interview, been integral to many of the voluntary safety features DJI has implemented on its drones.

His departure will leave a void in the industry – and particularly at DJI, where we’re told his agility and smarts have also helped the company extricate itself from more than one sticky situation. We hypothesize that DJI might not even realize what it has lost until his absence is fully felt. And it will be felt.

Brendan and colleagues at the 2016 DJI Mavic Pro launch in New York. Photo courtesy of Brendan Schulman

We have no doubt, based on his passion for (and fascination with) technology and policy, that the evolving world of ground-based drones – and Boston Dynamics in particular – will greatly benefit from Schulman’s dedication and intelligence. And who knows? It’s not that big of a stretch of the imagination to envision that Boston Dynamics has some products on the drawing board that can fly. Picture the potential implications of that for a moment. Seriously.

There’s a growing number of lawyers now specializing in drone law and policy. But it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the kind of influential role Brendan Schulman has on a global level. Perhaps a new Brendan will emerge. But his influence has been critical during the early and rapid development of drones, so it’s possible no one might ever rival his influence – regardless of how capable. He was the right person, in the right job, at the right time.

And so, on behalf of many in the drone world: Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

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